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Boro parents seek refunds from bus company

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Several Queens parents of Bronx High School of Science students are out hundreds of dollars after being promised refunds from a College Point−based bus company that seemingly disappeared after a suspicious fire destroyed its fleet in February.

The private bus company had provided direct bus service for East Elmhurst resident Sonia Rios’ son and hundreds of other students to Bronx High School of Science — a popular alternative to mass transit because there is no direct route for Queens students.

But in late February, Rios said she was promised $900 in a letter sent by Gagnon Bus Co., owner of Bronx Science Bus Co., after it said fires individually set in each of their buses destroyed the business’ entire fleet and forced them to suspend service.

Authorities and local leaders said the fire was referred to the Queens district attorney as an arson case, but the DA’s office said it could not comment on an ongoing investigation.

The letter recommended that her son should use the company’s competitor, Vallo Transportation, as an alternative, but provided no information on how she would receive her refund.

Since the letter was sent, more than a month has passed, and Rios said she and other parents around Queens have been left in the dark.

“It’s horrible. They disconnected the phone lines, their e−mail, they’re gone,” Rios said. “We are trying to find ways to get my money back, but we don’t know where to go. I can’t afford to pay another company.”

Rita Armstrong, another parent, had a similar story.

“I received a letter from the company saying I was owed a refund of $540 and given no contact information on how to retrieve this refund,” Armstrong said. “I am better off than most. The full service is over $2,000 a year, and some of these parents had already paid for the [20]09−10 school year in order to get a good rate. That means this company owes some of these people over $3,000.”

The city Department of Education said it cannot intervene because the situation involves agreements between a private company and parents.

According to a New York Times story published in 2003, Bronx Science Bus Service provided transportation for more than 700 students in Queens who attend the high school. The phone line for both Bronx Science Bus Service and its parent company, Gagnon Bus Co., have been disconnected.

“Bronx Science Bus Service is presently unable to continue to provide service to Bronx Science due to a devastating fire at our terminal overnight on Thursday 219⁄2009,” a statement on the company’s Web site reads. “Ten buses were consumed by fires set internally in each bus and the rest were damaged by close contact.”

E−mails sent to an address on the company’s Web site generate an automated response from Tom Guida, whose position with the company was not known.

“Since my employment with Gagnon Bus Co. Inc. has been terminated, I have been advised that I can no longer respond to e−mails sent to this address,” the e−mail said. “Those of you who have renewed for [the] 2009−2010 school year will be notified by mail how to contact Bronx Science Express Inc.”

City Councilman Tony Avella (D−Bayside) said he was working with parents affected by the company and that the situation brought to light a corner of the city that goes unscrutinzied.

“It’s a very serious situation,” he said. “I mean, who is watching these people and how many of these contracts are out there? This is something the city should be looking at.”

Avella said he planned to contact both the Queens district attorney and the state attorney general about the matter, and asked anyone affected to call his office at 718−747−2137.

Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e−mail at sstirling@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 138.

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